According to a new report by the United Nations (UN) independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the stalemate over action to resolve the ongoing conflict in Syria coincides with an increase in scale and frequency of gross human rights violations.
This sobering assessment of events in Syria has prompted the former international envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, to describe the international community’s response to the ongoing crisis as “shameful.” On September 19 , his successor Lakhdar Brahimi asserted, in his first interview since meeting President Bashar al-Assad, that the situation is getting worse. These findings should renew a sense of urgency toward formulating a concrete path to peace. The Friends of Syria meeting on September 20 in the Netherlands and the ongoing 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York are the latest high-profile international diplomatic efforts to address the crisis.
The Commission of Inquiry’s latest report confirms earlier findings, but it also has an added emphasis on the increased magnitude of gross human rights violations being committed against civilians, many of them children, during Syria’s ongoing conflict. A newly-released report by Save the Children has documented numerous cases of abuse against children, including torture and imprisonment. Save the Children is urging the United Nations to increase its presence on the ground to document these atrocities.
In reality, reports produced by the Commission of Inquiry may have little to no bearing on changing the dynamics of the conflict on the ground. However, the findings will play a role in laying the groundwork for justice and accountability for the crimes taking place in Syria.
The UN reports that there is a confidential list of individuals and units believed to be responsible for human rights violations. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said these names would not be publicly disclosed because suspects are entitled to the presumption of innocence, and because there isn’t a justice system in place to hold perpetrators accountable. These obstacles strengthen the call for the crimes to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, since Syria is not a state party to the ICC, such a measure would require a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution. This step would almost certainly be met with opposition by Russia and China, Syria’s steadfast veto-wielding allies, who continue to shield the Assad regime from robust Security Council action.
Outside of the UNSC, a range of options will be discussed at the forthcoming high-level international meetings. The Friends of Syria group met last Thursday to propose imposing further sanctions on the Syrian regime, urging banks and companies to adhere to the sanctions, even if their government is not a member, or risk damage to their reputation and jeopardize their relations with the rest of the business world. Ahead of the meeting, rights groups had proposed a new tool to strengthen existing sanctions: preemptive contract sanctions. The goal of these preemptive sanctions would be to put additional strain on the regime by making China and Russia less likely to sign new contracts for oil and arms.
Preemptive contract sanctions would entail international financial institutions, particularly those in the United States and United Kingdom, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of any new contracts with the Assad regime. This would limit the opportunities for new contracts to be carried out in the short term. It would also ensure that any legitimate successor government would not be responsible for new contracts made with the current Syrian government. Support from the European Union and the Arab League will be crucial for this effort to have legitimacy.
In terms of additional initiatives, the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) began on September 24. Syria is expected to dominate proceedings. UNGA should serve as a platform for gathering international support for the latest diplomatic push aimed at stopping the violence under the current international envoy, Brahimi.
According to conservative estimates, more than 20,000 people killed since the beginning of the uprising. More than 1.2 million people had been displaced within Syria, and 2.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. These figures reflect a somber reality that the conflict only continues to worsen as fighting between government and anti-government forces is on the rise, and amid the Syrian army’s escalating attacks on densely populated areas such Aleppo and Damascus.